For all the great variety of Mexican food in Chicago, it's just not much of a fish taco town. But during Lent—a time of year when multitudes of observant Catholics commit themselves to gustatory sacrifice and denial—crispy breaded pescadillos or tacos de pescado begin to appear all over the city on special Lenten, or Cuaresma, menus. This occurs even in fleshcentric taquerias and birrierias where the idea of a pescetarian meal seems about as appropriate as pork chops on Passover.
Yet the Lenten fish taco season is cruel for all eaters, not just Catholics, because for the most part these are pretty sorry specimens. I haven't found one that wasn't a once-frozen, fried, breaded fillet barely above fish-stick caliber, wrapped in a limp steamed corn tortilla, the quality of the house salsa offering the only possible redemption. If you find any good ones, let me know.
Take the tacos de pescado at the otherwise exemplary minichain Zacatacos. Working through one of these carb-wrapped footballs of bland, overfried perch certainly feels like penance, especially when the taqueria's fine tacos al pastor, picadillo, and carne asada are getting shaved and grilled before your eyes. During Lent it also offers a few other meatless specials, including the sweet bread pudding capirotada and the shrimp cakes known as tortitas de camaron (more on those later).
Such things are common on the Fridays in Lent, when restaurants all over town feature especialidades de Cuaresma, meatless or near-meatless dishes for those who observe the traditional end-of-the-week fast. These items range from fairly common mariscos and antojitos easily found most of the year—chiles rellenos, seafood cocteles, fried tilapia and snapper, and big bowls of red-brothed shrimp and fish soups—to more austere little bites. Mushrooms and cactus-stuffed tacos and gorditas appear in profusion, as well as all varieties of potato, shrimp, and vegetable preparations. And markets like Back of the Yards' Supermercado El Ranchito (2416 W. 47th, 773-927-5252) set up displays showcasing ingredients specific to Lenten dishes—ground shrimp powder, stale rounds of bolillo, canned cactus and tuna, and bags of dried favas and lentils—whose name in fact derives not from Lent but from the Latin botanical designation Lens culinaris.
Last Friday I set out on a Cruzado de Cuaresma with Reader contributor Rob Lopata and Investigator of South-Side Culinary Oddities Dr. Peter Engler to track down some of the more unusual Cuaresma specials running around town. You have just a couple more Fridays to check them out.
We got started at Zacatacos (5925 S. Pulaski, 773-581-9481), and while the fried fish didn't bode well for the long day ahead, we did discover one oddly compelling meatless special that happens to be on the menu all year long—tacos de papa. That's right, a potato taco, a schmear of finely mashed spud on—and this is key—a hard, crunchy shell. You might think hard shells are the stuff of mass-produced taco kits, the Taco Bell of the suburban supermarket, but the brittle crunchiness is an essential contrast to the mushy, bland potato, which itself picks up nicely browned surface area from the griddle.
Potatoes have a strong presence on Cuaresma menus everywhere, particularly at nearby Las Esperanzas (1758 W. 47th, 773-254-7040), where the coarsely mashed tubers are fried in crispy flautas and blanketed with cheese and crema, or formed into saucer-shaped tortitas de papa, potato pancakes given a slight acidic tang from the addition of orange sazon seasoning salt.
Las Esperanzas also offers a pair of soups typical of the season—nice, simple bowls of lentils or fava beans. It's the latter, sopa de habas, that best demonstrates the house's careful home-style touch with their Cuaresma specials. Its thick, creamy consistency comes from beans that have broken down in the slow simmer. Seasoned with a dash of sazon and a little dried cilantro, its thick mustard-colored cast is spackled with strips of crunchy tart nopales.
At Pilsen's La Casa del Pueblo (1834 S. Blue Island, 312-421-4664, lacasadelpueblo.com), once the in-store take-out department of the neighboring supermercado, a full array of Cuaresma specials is laid out on the buffet line on Fridays. It's best to get there early, because items like the pungent batter-fried sardine-stuffed jalapeños and the enchiladas potosinas, salsa-tinged cheese-filled empanadas, don't have lengthy shelf lives. On the other hand, pans of nopales or potatoes tossed with scrambled eggs have staying power, as do the calabacitas rellenas de queso, juicy but firm zucchini-like Mexican squashes stuffed with melted cheese.
Perhaps the most ubiquitous of Cuaresma foods is the scarcest at any other time of year. Tortitas de camaron are spongy fried cakes formed from a mixture of ground dried shrimp and egg. They're usually served as full platillos, smothered in a brick red guajillo sauce with potatoes, nopales, and sides of rice and refried beans, sans lard. (Pretty much everyone I asked said their beans were lardless year-round—not just during Lent). For beginners these can seem rather aggressively flavored. Texturally they're not unlike the Thai fish cakes tod mun, but they have a powerful funk-forward shrimpiness and aroma, which is mitigated by the acidic salsa.Taqueria Traspasada (3144 N. California, 773-539-4533)—alongside an order of fried smelts (aka charales)—were thin relative to the milder but fat, bouncy varieties at Zacatacos and Las Esperanzas. Every plate is different.
If you're headed out for goat on a Friday during Lent, it's unlikely you're observing the fast. That's not an acceptable reason to pass on the capirotada, the signature Lenten bread pudding that disappears after the holiday, at Birrieria Zaragoza (4852 S. Pulaski, 773-523-3700). We tried varieties all over town, but none beat Norma Zaragoza's textural masterpiece: cut rounds of fried bolillo built on a layer of fried, quartered tortilla and cooked in a syrup boiled down from unrefined piloncillo sugar cones, cinnamon, and vanilla, with a single slice of tomatillo for acidity (the recipe's here on our blog the Food Chain). Before baking, Zaragoza mines this alternately soft and crusty marvel with raisins, coconut, peanuts, and cotija cheese, which adds a chewy, savory element that might remind you that this dish is descended from meaty Roman and Spanish bread puddings. She finishes it with a light sprinkling of rainbow-colored decorative candied grageas, and serves it with a cinnamon-scented sauce of condensed and whole milk on the side. It isn't a treacly sweet, but it's rich and indulgent enough to prove that Cuaresma doesn't have to be all about dietary privation.